The Quatermass Xperiment (1955)

“There’s no room for personal feelings in science.”

I decided to stick Val Guest’s 1955 classic on the other night as I recognised the ‘Quatermass’ part of the title from when I was younger. After a few minutes I quickly realised that what I had remembered was the 1967 TV series Quatermass and the Pit and that I had never seen The Quatermass Xperiment.  This turned out to be an added bonus, as the movie’s haunting imagery and genuine mystery made it both gripping and disturbing, an instant favourite overnight.

As a huge fan of fifties science-fiction, for its ground-breaking ideas and focus on cultural anxiety, I was soon pleased to discover that Guest’s film was as good as all the other classics such as Them!, War of the Worlds and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. But the best thing about Quatermass is its ability to mix the horror genre so successfully into the narrative of fear in a pre-space-race era. The film put Hammer Horror studios on the map, as well as doing the TV series it was based on great justice, despite some big, perhaps incorrect, changes in script.

Before Russia launched Sputnik I and put a man into space, men were still speculating on the idea of space travel. Quatermass tackles the unknown dangers of going beyond our natural boundaries, giving the viewer a revealing insight into how far we have come in terms of space exploration in a short 60 years. The film starts with what it first assumed to be an alien spacecraft crashing into the atypical rural field, before it is soon unveiled that it is a man-made rocket, which was carrying three astronauts as part of an experiment by scientist Bernard Quatermass, played by Brian Donlevy. Richard Wordsworth plays the only ‘survivor’ Victor Carroon, whom appears out of the wreckage, dumb and in shock. Wordsworth is excellent as the zombie-like Victor, whose contorted face, portrays pain and confusion terrifically as he begins to mutate into something both horrifying and dangerous to the human race.

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What I loved most about this film, and the reason I enjoy all the fifties horror, is its relentless obsession with truth and facts. Even if these facts are now known to be false, it is the obsession with speculation and science that drove the passion and ambition of the time. In fifties science-fiction, it is the scientists themselves whom are the focal point of knowledge, it is they that move the narrative, fill in the gaps and unwrap the unknown. Professor Quatermass is no exception, as he attempts to unravel the mystery of his failed experiment and discover the answer that will prevent the outbreak of Carroon’s virus. The scene where they watch the found footage from the rocket is especially creepy, perhaps even ahead of its time in terms of style and cinematography. There is something very visual and raw about this film, which I enjoyed immensley, despite hiding under the covers for most of the film. Joking of course, sort of.

Shapstik Verdict: A fantastic film, which although slightly anti-climatic compared to its contemporaries, still manages to send a chill down the spine after all these years. A healthy mix of Hammer horror, classic sci-fi and remnants of detective stories from earlier in the century, Quatermass has plenty to offer, even in the short running time of 78 mins, almost unheard of in today’s film market. 8/10

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